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East Lansing — It didn’t take La’Darius Jefferson long to realize he wasn’t in high school anymore.

The former high school quarterback from Muskegon is making the transition to running back as a freshman at Michigan State, and as soon as the Spartans had the pads on the reality of his first preseason camp hit him hard — thanks to a fellow freshman.

During an early drill, Jefferson met 330-pound defensive tackle Dashaun Mallory.

“He locks on to a guard, I run in the hole, I see it, I hit it as fast as I can, not being patient,” Jefferson explained this week. “He swims over and just shocks me for a minute, stands me up and I just knew from right then, welcome to college football.”

Those moments are common for most first-year players. For Jefferson, it’s coming with the added component of learning a new position.

It might not be a drastic move. After all, as a senior at Muskegon, Jefferson ran for 2,095 yards and 33 touchdowns while throwing for 1,205 yards and 21 touchdowns on just 117 attempts.

The biggest change for him has been realizing he’s no longer head and shoulders above the rest of the players on the field.

More: Brian Lewerke: Michigan State offense gaining ground

More: Michigan State No. 11, Michigan No. 14 in AP preseason poll

“It’s fast, physical and way more competitive than what you think,” Jefferson said. “It’s like having 11 All-Stars everywhere when you are on the field. You have like 120-something All-Stars in one locker room. It’s very fast and competitive and it’s really shocking when you first get here. You don’t know what to expect. Everyone is big, everybody is fast, everybody is strong, so you have to come in with that will to work and will to get better.”

Jefferson understands the opportunity he has. Following in the footsteps of players like Le’Veon Bell and Jeremy Langford is important, but pushing the Spartans to higher heights as a program is part of his focus, as well.

“Just the (traditions) that we’ve been brought up on since the guys that paved the way before us,” Jefferson said. “Langford, all those great guys. A lot of great guys that have paved the way before us. Just put this program on the peak that it is and the expectations that we have to meet. When you're here and you think of Michigan State football, you think of national championships, Rose Bowls and Big Ten championships, so you have expectations that you have to meet in the season.”

Whether Jefferson remains at running back long-term remains to be seen. His athleticism means he can be used in various positions on the offensive side of the ball, and even quarterback is not out of the question somewhere down the road.

In the meantime, he and fellow freshman Elijah Collins continue to find their niche as they work to find playing time in a running backs room that includes senior LJ Scott, sophomore Connor Heyward and redshirt freshman Weston Bridges.

However his freshman season plays out, Jefferson believes he has already made huge strides in just a couple of weeks.

“I’ve improved as a person and as a football player,” Jefferson said. “I know I’m improved because you get that sit down, that challenging moment that, ‘You aren’t just going to get in there and start no more, you ain’t the starter no more, you ain’t this, you ain’t that no more.’ You’ve gotta work, hit that reset switch and start all over again.”

Ready to roll

With preseason camp set to end after Thursday’s final practice, the Spartans can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and the opener against Utah State on Aug. 31 can’t come fast enough.

“Our excitement is off the charts,” senior safety Khari Willis said. “As far as our defense, we’re kind of foaming at the mouth to get this thing going. We’ve got everything installed as far as what we’re going to do. We’re playing fast, we’re playing comfortable and confident.”

Added Jefferson, “I’m tired of the defense hitting on me already. I’m ready to hit somebody else. I’m ready for us to go run over somebody. To catch the ball and bully them.”

Freelance writer Matt Schoch contributed

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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